Leapfrogging to a COVID-proof smart workplace

While COVID-19 is disrupting economies, it is also pushing frontiers to fast-track and adopt innovations. The pandemic has underlined the urgent need for occupational safety across the globe. In Bangladesh, technological advancements such as apps that function as mobile wallets or learning platforms addressing sexual harassment could be possible solutions in creating safer workplaces.

In the fall of 2019, 50 young trade union leaders of Bangladesh came together to explore their preferred futures of work in 2040 at a futures thinking workshop, jointly organized by the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. While the participants came from a spectrum of sectors, including ready-made garments (RMG), textile, transport, electronic, domestic work and hairdressing, their visions for the future shared commonalities. They wanted fair jobs, job security, social security, physically and emotionally safe workplaces and equal rights for all genders. The participants wanted freedom to form trade unions, educational opportunities for skills development and technological adaptation. They envisioned facilities for child care. In their mind, these were thoughts for a distant future and of course, COVID-19 had not appeared yet. 


Putting workers' safety first

With COVID-19 on the scene, 2040 can’t seem to wait. We can’t wait for social security – we need it now. We can’t wait for physically and emotionally safe workspaces – this has to happen now. Now, we not only want a green and smart work environment, we also want a COVID-proof smart workplace. While we are battling a pandemic, can we leapfrog to a desired future, where technology can work as a bridge between the tensions and aspirations of workers and their employers?

A rapid response survey undertaken by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) showed that approximately 3 million workers (about 80 per cent of workers) had opened mobile financial service accounts by 3 May 2020. This illustrates a steep increase compared to a national survey conducted by Innovision Consulting in 2019, which showed that only 35.4 per cent of RMG workers had mobile wallets. The huge spike in contactless payments happened as a result of the stimulus package (cheap loans) that the government gave to factory owners as a COVID-19 counter-measure. In order to be compliant to receive the package, the government required that factories paid wages through mobile wallets.

The need for safety of the workers is triggering demand for improved occupational health facilities at factories. Numerous innovations in disinfection chambers have been made by organizations such as BUET, the Institute of Diploma Engineers Bangladesh (IDEB), Wizkit and others. While these chambers are being installed at hospitals, some factories are also installing the chambers, hoping that it can add an additional layer of safety measures against the virus.  

The coronavirus pandemic is challenging frontiers as organizations and individuals are trying to find ways to remain protected by avoiding public places or gatherings. This provides an opportunity to use technology to provide services that have been traditionally delivered through direct face to face interaction. For example, the factories can work with technology service providers to create digital platforms to list worker’s demands for food, medicine and other household products and work with local traders to get these products delivered to or near factory premises. This would help ensure that workers avoid crowded marketplaces, but also keep local traders and pharmacists in business. 

Organizations engaged with workers have attempted to promote reporting of sexual harassment and gender-based violence through technology platforms. These might get more traction now. The Amader Kotha Helpline was established in 2014 as a mechanism for workers to report and resolve safety and other concerns in the RMG Sector in Bangladesh. UN Women in Bangladesh has also developed a learning app for RMG workers to address sexual harassment in the workplace and public places in their vicinity. Users will be able to access information on what sexual harassment means and where they can seek help if they are harassed. 


New horizons for e-learning and the "new normal"

Newly-emerging opportunities are also used to launch new e-learning programs or to pivot based on their previous experiences. On 1 June 2020, the Global Labor University is launching an online course to support a global debate on policy solutions and strategies to address the main challenges exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19. These formats also need to be translated into different languages and contexts. In 2019, the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies, in collaboration with the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), launched a Bangla Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), primarily targeted at mid-level trade unionists and labor activists to develop strategies for improving workers’ rights and strengthening industrial relations to achieve sustainable and inclusive development in Bangladesh.

The “new normal” enforced by COVID-19 provides the opportunity to increase the use of such content by workers. Lessons can be also learned from storytelling initiatives from other sectors such as Karunavirus.org, which has been created to amplify the voice of collective compassion, where stories are shared of everyday people choosing love over fear. Such storytelling platforms can also enable diversity of voice in the RMG sector, as well as improve relationships among relevant stakeholders. 

While COVID-19 is disrupting economies, it is also pushing frontiers to fast track innovations or adoption of innovations. We can start with little steps, by acting now to lay the foundations of a COVID-proof smart workplace. A step that we need now for the safety of workers and increased trust between workers and employers. One small step and one giant leap-frog to a preferred future of work, starting from today. 


Md. Rubaiyath Sarwar is an expert on systemic solutions to poverty challenges. He is the Managing Director of Innovision Consulting and Chairman of the Value Chain Capacity Building Network for Asia and the Pacific. His forum, Desperately Seeking Development Expert (DSDE) engages 13,000 professionals on development dialogue. He is an Acumen Fellow.

Shakil Ahmed is an educator, futurist and storyteller and part of the leadership team at Acumen Academy Bangladesh. He has conducted numerous futures thinking workshops, such as on the futures of work in 2040 with young trade union leaders in collaboration with FES and the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies and on the futures of education in 2041 with public and private stakeholders in collaboration with a2i, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Government of Bangladesh.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

FES Asia

Bringing together the work of our offices in the region, we provide you with the latest news on current debates, insightful research and innovative visual outputs on the future of work, geopolitics, gender justice, and social-ecological transformation.